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New Wales Air Ambulance Aviation Partner Takes Off

A new aviation provider has taken to the skies in support of the lifesaving Wales Air Ambulance Charity. 

It was announced in February this year that Gama Aviation had successfully bid for the seven-year contract to provide aviation services to the air ambulance in Wales. The decision was made by the Charity’s Trustees following an extensive 18-month procurement process which included input from both aviation and medical professionals.

The Gama Aviation contract, valued at £65 million, covers the operation and maintenance of a primary fleet of four Airbus H145 helicopters, operating from the Charity’s current sites in Dafen, Cardiff, Caernarfon and Welshpool. It additionally includes a backup H145 helicopter to ensure service continuity during periods of maintenance for the primary fleet.  

This will be an enhancement compared to the previous fleet, which was made up of three H145 helicopters and one smaller EC135 helicopter. As part of the new contract, the EC135 aircraft has been replaced with a H145, giving the Charity a consistent fleet of advanced helicopters to deliver Wales’ vital air ambulance service. 

Gama Aviation was due to start operations on 1 January 2024, with the previous contract ending on 31 December. However, to avoid such a complex process taking place over the Christmas and New Year holidays, all parties agreed to bring forward the transition date.

As a result, Gama Aviation has now taken full control of the operation and maintenance of the Charity’s fleet of aircraft. 

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David Gilbert, Wales Air Ambulance Chair of Trustees, said: “This has been a complex 12-month transition process and I would like to thank all those involved – our outgoing and incoming aviation partners and our medical partners the Emergency Medical Retrieval and Transfer Service.

“We are also pleased to see that a majority of the pilots and engineers who worked with Wales Air Ambulance as part of the previous contract, will be joining Gama Aviation to continue working with our lifesaving service. It just goes to show how passionate they are about serving Wales and saving lives.

“Gama Aviation is a forward-thinking and ambitious company and we look forward to working with them in the years to come. We would also like to thank our outgoing aviation provider for their support of the service over the past 7 years.”

Marwan Khalek, Gama Aviation Plc Chief Executive Officer, said: “We have worked hard with all stakeholders to transition the aviation service and I’m delighted that we are able to take up our responsibilities to the Charity and the people of Wales, earlier than scheduled. As we bring the service online in a safe, orderly fashion I’m sure many will notice suitable differences. Whether it is the new aircraft livery, with its proud depiction of the Charity’s strong Welsh identity, or new pilot flight suits, that use a combination of red and black to aid identification at the scene of an incident. We will continue to explore ways to support Wales Air Ambulance’s lifesaving mission.”

This new era of aviation for Wales Air Ambulance also sees it take on the direct lease for three of the advanced H145 aircraft.

Dr Sue Barnes, the Charity’s Chief Executive, said: “Our historical contracts saw our suppliers holding the leases for all aircraft. That felt like a potential risk to our services, particularly at a time of global uncertainty. So, to protect our lifesaving service, Trustees agreed that three of the aircraft in our service will be leased directly to the Charity. Therefore, Gama Aviation will operate and maintain four aircraft, plus a backup helicopter, on behalf of the Charity but the Charity will be the direct leaseholder for three of them.”

Seven years on from the last aviation contract procurement process, a like-for-like aviation service now totals just over £3 million more per annum.  

Dr Barnes added: “Our aim is always to protect our services for the people of Wales while continually seeking improvements in service and availability. We agreed that, despite the significant increase in operational cost, the right thing to do was to maintain our existing fleet rather than reduce it. We now need to raise £11.2 million every year to cover the cost of the aviation operation and maintenance, the direct lease of three of the aircraft, our fleet of rapid response vehicles, and fuel.

“It’s a big target to reach but, with the passionate and ongoing support from the people of Wales, we believe that we can rise to the challenge together.”

Wales Air Ambulance is consultant-led, taking hospital-standard treatments to the patient and, if required, transferring them directly to the most appropriate hospital for their illness or injury. For the patient, this can mean hours saved when compared to standard care and is proven to greatly improve survival and early recovery. 

This advanced critical care includes the ability to administer anaesthesia, deliver blood transfusions and conduct minor operations, all at the scene of an incident. 

The Service is often described as a ‘flying emergency department’, however, it can also deliver the same standard of care by road via its fleet of rapid response vehicles.

This 24/7 pan-Wales service is delivered via a unique Third Sector and Public Sector partnership. The Wales Air Ambulance Charity relies on public donations to raise the £11.2 million required every year to keep the helicopters in the air and rapid response vehicles on the road. The Emergency Medical Retrieval and Transfer Service (EMRTS) supplies highly skilled NHS consultants and critical care practitioners who work on board the Charity’s vehicles.  

The aviation transition comes during an independent review of the Charity’s NHS medical partners, EMRTS, which is being undertaken by the Chief Ambulance Services Commissioner. This has been reflected in the new aviation contract, which can adapt to potential future service delivery changes if required (revised base locations, revised operational hours, enhanced after-dark flying). 

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